Baltimore's heroin task force has a $20M proposal to reduce overdose deaths

By Sarah Gantz, Baltimore Business Journal

Around-the-clock addiction treatment services and a public outreach campaign aimed at addressing stigma around addiction are among a Baltimore task force's recommendations for tackling the city’s heroin crisis.

Baltimore's Heroin Treatment and Prevention Task Force on Monday unveiled a $20 million, 10-point proposal for curbing heroin and opioid overdose deaths and expanding treatment support options. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in October convened the 35-member group of public health leaders, addiction experts and other stakeholders to draft a city-wide strategy for addressing opioid addiction. The report is intended to serve as a compass for the city as it attempts to gain control over a problem that has roiled its streets for years.

“Abuse of these drugs generates crime, strains our health care system and harms the quality of life for residents in many communities,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “In short, heroin and opioid abuse threatens all aspects of Baltimore’s future.”

The bulk of the $20 million price tag for the proposal would go to two initiatives that Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said would be the biggest investment, but could also make the biggest difference in the city's heroin addiction and overdose problem. They include a 24-7 treatment center, essentially an emergency department dedicated to substance abuse and overdose issues, and a standardized treatment program for inmates that would include follow-up services for people once they are released.

The city is working with the state's federal representatives, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, federal health agencies and private organizations to find funding for those programs, which would cost almost $20 million, Wen said.

Baltimore has already received $3.6 million in state funding to lay the groundwork for a central stabilization center — a safe place for users to turn to sober up. The city is identifying a location for the center, landing additional funding for operations and establishing guidelines for who should be cared for at the center. The stabilization center, which Wen hopes to have running in a year, could be the foundation for a future treatment center.

The remainder of the 10-point list should cost under $1 million and can be accomplished without extra financial support, Wen said. The city is already moving forward with some of the task forces recommendations, such as a public outreach campaign and a database that tracks in real-time the number of slots available at local treatment centers and the number of people with substance abuse issues.

The public education campaign centers around a new website, dontdie.org, that emphasizes emphasize addiction as a chronic illness in an attempt to reduce the stigma associated with being treated for addiction. The site features videos of Wen demonstrating how to administer naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug that the city is trying to get out to more users and family members.

Wen and Rawlings-Blake debuted the report's findings at a Monday afternoon press conference along North Fulton Avenue in front of a bright yellow billboard bearing the website name in bold, black letters. Cummings and the task force's co-chairs, Behavioral Health System Baltimore CEO Bernard J. McBride and Bon Secours Baltimore Health System CEO Dr. Samuel Ross, were among the officials who spoke at the event.

Cummings praised Rawlings-Blake and Wen for prioritizing addiction treatment and overdose deaths, and said that the city's plan of action could serve as a national model.

Here are task force's recommendations:

  • A dashboard with real-time data tracking on the number of people with substance use problems, overdoses and capacity at treatment centers.
  • A city-wide heroin overdose plan that emphasizes interventions for high-risk users and widespread distribution of naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug.
  • A centralized, 24-7 intake system that will give immediate access to an addiction counselor or social worker.
  • More data-drive treatment options, such universal case management, treatment for inmates, and expanded use of buprenorphine, an alternative to common heroin addiction drug methadone.
  • Guaranteed treatment on demand that ensures adequate capacity at treatment centers so patients are not turned away.
  • Voluntary certification for substance use providers and a pilot to refine best practices for treating addiction.
  • Partnership and collaboration with the state and federal government, and organizations that pilot new initiatives, such as economic incentives.
  • A standardized good neighbor agreement that includes best practices for clinics operating in residential neighborhoods and addresses issues such as loitering, cleanliness and security.
  • A public awareness campaign that aims to educate city residents and businesses about substance addiction with an emphasis on reducing fear and stigma.